In the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., in a part that tourists never see, are the bones. They lie in wooden drawers on tall metal frames that form mazelike paths through the vast space. The drawers bear yellowed labels, some written in Gothic script: “Indian Skeletons Mississippi,” “Montana Skeletons,” “Arkansas Skulls.” Altogether, there are 33,000 full or partial skeletons, most of them stored on the museum’s third and fourth floors. More than half, 18,584, are remains of Native Americans.

The bones tell stories, but the version depends on who’s listening. To the physical anthropologists who study them, the bones describe the lives of people who lived centuries ago. To Curly Bear Wagner and Buster Yellow Kidney, members of the Blackfeet tribe of northwestern Montana, the bones tell a different story, a story of disrespect for their people and their religion. The museums collection includes the remains of 16 people who once lay in a Blackfeet cemetery in Montana. In 1892, a U.S. Army surgeon stole them. Working at night, he smuggled the skulls out one by one and shipped them to the U.S. surgeon general in Washington, D.C.

In July, 96 years after the grave robbing, the Blackfeet will take the remains from the Smithsonian back to their reservation. The Blackfeet are among a growing number of tribes that are reclaiming their ancestors’ bones for religious and cultural reasons. Since the 70s Indians have waged–and sometimes won–fights for remains at state and university museums across the country. An Indianapolis-based group, American Indians Against Desecration, formed in 1980 by the International Indian Treaty Council to help tribes reclaim and rebury their ancestors, estimates that remains of between 300,000 and 600,000 American Indians and people from the Alaskan tribes of Eskimos, Aleuts, and Koniags are housed in universities and museums across the country. Now, many tribes have trained the spotlight on the Smithsonian’s vast collection.

More than property is at stake. The battle is not so much over ownership as it is over clashing worldviews. On one side are scientists, accustomed to dealing in the rational and quantifiable. On the other side are Indian cultural leaders, who want to preserve religious traditions. It’s not so much that the anthropologists and the Indians don’t understand each other. It’s just that they have different jobs to do.

Curly Bear Wagner sits in a chair in the lobby of the Harrington Hotel in downtown Washington waiting for his friends to arrive. He is a stocky man of 42 who wears his long hair in plaits bound with red fabric and crisscrossed with leather thongs. Wagner, the tribe’s cultural director, and Buster Yellow Kidney, a spiritual leader, have come to Washington from Montana to arrange for the return of their ancestors’ skulls, three and a half years after they began efforts to recover them. While he waits, Wagner talks about what the return of the skulls will mean to the Blackfeet.

“The Smithsonian wanted to ship them back to us by parcel post,” he says, shaking his head. “It just shows they don’t understand what they’ve got.”

Four months from now, Wagner and Yellow Kidney will return to Washington accompanied by tribal elders. They plan to build a sweat lodge on the mall in front of the Museum of Natural History. The sweat lodge, a domed tent about eight feet in diameter framed by willow branches, named for its function as a sort of steam bath, is used for rituals of purification. Once the lodge is built, they will spend a day purifying themselves: physically, with steam from heated rocks, and spiritually, with songs and prayers and by smoking tobacco in a ceremonial pipe.

The ceremonies are needed to show the skulls proper respect and to protect the tribe members from their angry spirits, Wagner says. Religious customs of many American Indian tribes hold that bodies must be returned to Mother Earth in order to continue their spiritual journey. Those spirits whose journeys are interrupted may become unsettled and malevolent.

“Spiritually, they belong back on the reservation,” says Wagner. “Our people had no intention of letting them be dug up and taken to a museum in Washington, D.C. How would you like it if someone dug up your grandfather and moved him?”

Wagner tires of waiting for his friends and decides to hunt for them in the Kitcheteria, a cafeteria adjacent to the hotel. There he finds Buster Yellow Kidney eating breakfast with three other men. Yellow Kidney, 57, a lanky, short-haired man, is a spiritual leader for the tribe who also travels to other reservations doing faith healing. Yellow Kidney is eager to talk about his struggles to return the Blackfeet skulls to the ground. He sets down his coffee cup and pulls a letter from a vinyl folder. It is a photocopy of a handwritten letter to the surgeon general written in 1892 by the doctor who stole the skulls:

“The burial place is in plain sight of many Indian houses and very near frequented roads: I had to visit the cemetary at night when not even the dogs were stirring. This was usually between 12 p.m. and daylight: after securing one [skull] I had to pass the Indian sentry at the stockade gate, which I never attempted with more than one, for fear of detection.”

The doctor smuggled out 15 skulls, one at a time, concealing them in a pocket of his hunting coat. He also took “a left radius and ulna of a woman with the identical bracelets on that were buried with her: the bones of themselves are nothing, but the combination with the ornaments make them a little noticeable.” He writes in the letter that he wanted to send the complete skeletons, but explains that taking coffins out would be difficult because it would require a wagon and that would be tough to sneak past the Indians. He closes by explaining how he must work surreptitiously, because if found out, his work would bring him “into disrepute among the noble (?) Red Man.”

Yellow Kidney says the letter made him angry, but it also gave him a possible explanation for the run of bad luck the Blackfeet have had. Among the problems on their 1. 5-million-acre reservatlon in northwestern Montana is a high unemployment rate, averaging 56 percent year-round and rising as high as 80 percent in the winter, according to a planner for the tribe. Forty-three percent of Indians in Glacier County, which contains the bulk of the reservation, had an annual household income of less than $7,000 in 1983. Statistics compiled by the Indian Health Service for 1982 show a suicide rate on the reservation three times higher than the national average. According to a tribal health department administrator, about 50 percent of Blackfeet either suffer from alcoholism or are related to an alcoholic. The tribe has begun several programs to combat the condition.

“So many bad things happen: alcoholism, family violence, unemployment. It’s because the spirits aren’t at rest,” Yellow Kidney says.

Yellow Kidney and Wagner had the Smithsonian verify that the Blackfeet skulls were indeed Blackfeet, to avoid reburying them with skulls from enemy tribes. Yet in general they don’t approve of the scientific study of human remains and they aren’t interested in a scientifically rendered account of their past. They learn about their ancestors through stories passed down from grandparent to parent to child or from tribal elders to young people.

“We don’t care about science,” Wagner says. “We already know about our ancestors. We know what he’s done and how he went about it. That’s what matters to us.”

The Blackfeet tribe isn’t the first to retrieve remains or sacred objects from the Smithsonian, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. In 1984 the Smithsonian returned the skulls of four Modoc warriors to the Klamath tribe of Oregon. It restored a ceremonial vessel to a Pueblo Indian tribe in New Mexico and a carved figure to the Zunis of New Mexico. Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams has pledged to return to the Northern Cheyenne tribe of Montana a ceremonial pipe stolen from a chief in 1869 needed for sacred rites. The successes of these tribes and growing knowledge among American Indians of the Smithsonian’s collection have spurred other tribes to make requests for remains and sacred objects.

“I don’t think there is an Indian organization or a group of Indians in this country that isn’t dealing with this issue,” says Raymond Apodaca, an Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Indian who is executive director of the Texas Indian Commission. “To the Indians, the destruction of grave sites for academic and scientific purposes is a violation of religious rights and the ultimate right to a final resting place.”

A dozen tribes have written to the Smithsonian inquiring about remains, according to Smithsonian anthropologist Dr. Douglas Ubelaker. Citing confidentiality, Ubelaker would not disclose the names of tribes that have written or the nature of their requests.

Other sources have disclosed which tribes are seeking the return of remains:

The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, Oregon, have asked for remains of tribal members taken from a burial ground on Memaloose Island in 1934, says Liz Tewee, curator for the Middle Oregon Indian Historical Society. The remains were taken when the Army Corps of Engineers flooded the island, in the middle of the Columbia River, after construction of the Bonneville Dam.

The Northern Cheyenne tribe of Montana would like to recover the remains of 64 tribe members who were killed in 1879 during a battle with the U.S. Army Cavalry in Nebraska, says tribal historian Bill Tallbull.

The Larsen Bay Aleut tribe of Kodiak Island, Alaska, contends that representatives of the Smithsonian dug up the remains of 480 tribe members from a burial site in 1936, says Jeanne Carlson, secretary to the tribal president. The tribe wants them back and met with Smithsonian representatives in Kodiak Bay in March to discuss the matter.

Several sympathetic legislators have introduced bills to help tribes reclaim their ancestors’ remains. Alaska state representative F. Kay Wallis, a member of the Gwitchin Tribe, recently introduced a resolution calling for the Smithsonian to return to the state remains of all native Alaskans. Wallis says the resolution–which passed the legislature and was signed by the governor–marks the beginning of her effort to help native Alaskans retrieve as many as 6,000 skeletal remains from the Smithsonian.

Nationally, Senate bill 187, introduced by Senator John Melcher (D-Montana) last year, would set up a board to mediate disputes between Indians and federally funded museums over remains and sacred objects. Melcher was prompted to introduce the bill by the initial difficulties of the Northern Cheyenne in recovering their sacred pipe from the Smithsonian. Senate bill 1722, a bill introduced by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) last year, would allow the Smithsonian to share the collection of the Museum of the American Indian in New York City. The bill would also establish a task force, which would include Native Americans, to study the “repatriation” issue and report to Congress what should be done with the Indian remains. Many anthropologists and archaeologists oppose both bills, seeing them as threatening the control museums and universities have over their collections of human remains. They view with particular horror the possibility of legislation that would compel federally funded institutions to return remains to tribes.

“If the [Smithsonian] collection were gone, it would be comparable to losing a major section of the Library of Congress,” says George Armelagos, anthropology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “You’d lose all the books that have been written on American Indian biology.”

According to Armelagos, president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the Smithsonian has the best grouping of Native American remains in the world. Its value to physical anthropologists lies in its size, its range, and the quality of its documentation. Relatively few Indian skeletons are added to collections today (most are reburied after being uncovered, following the wishes of Indian tribes). That makes the Smithsonian collection an increasingly precious resource for anthropologists, Armelagos says.

Many Indians wonder why the Smithsonian needs remains of 18,584 Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, and Koniags. Some, like Apodaca, say the large number of Indian bones in the collection reflects racist attitudes. “We don’t allow treatment of other peoples’ remains that we allow of American Indian remains,” he says. “During Tennessee Valley Authority construction, they dug up human remains. The Indian remains they carted off to museums, while they reburied the blacks and whites.”

Smithsonian anthropologist Douglas Ubelaker has heard the charges before. In his office on the third floor of the natural history museum, just beyond the cabinets of bones, he tries to provide some answers.

“Eighteen thousand sounds like a lot of bones,” Ubelaker concedes. “But when you think about what we’re trying to learn from those bones, they aren’t enough. Say you’re around 300 years from now, and you have a sample of 18,000 skeletons from around the country. What kind of statement about the people in Washington, D.C., could you make if you had only 20 skeletons? In order to make scientific statements that are well thought out and valid, those samples have to be large enough to have some meaning.

“This is an important point,” he adds. “We’re not Indianphiles. We’re not absolutely concentrated on Indians. We also study different populations and populations in different areas of the world.”

Indian remains make up 42.5 percent of the remains in the Smithsonian collection; whites, 20 percent; Eskimos, Aleuts, and Koniags, 11.9 percent; blacks, 5.1 percent; and others, 20.6 percent. Since American Indians predated the arrival of Europeans by at least 20,000 years, it’s not surprising that a majority of bones unearthed in this country are theirs, Ubelaker says. Also, American Indians are especially important to anthropologists because they were the first North Americans, and they left no written records.

Ubelaker says anthropologists have been portrayed as the bad guys in the repatriation battles. In fact, he notes, the Smithsonian’s anthropology staff has provided Indians with information about their ancestors’ remains. In 1985 the Smithsonian mailed statistical information on the North American collection to 225 federally recognized tribes. The staff is trying to locate descendants of about 20 individuals identified by name in the collection in order to return their remains.

Beyond that, anthropologists offer Indians information about what their ancestors were like, he says.

One of the problems surrounding the bones controversy, to Ubelaker’s mind, is that the general public doesn’t have a very good understanding of what anthropologists do. Archaeologists, by contrast, study pot shards, tools, animal bones, charcoal, or pollen in the soil to gather information about the cultures of past peoples. Physical anthropologists find clues to past lives in the bones themselves. By submitting bones to various methods of scientific study–chemical analysis of isotope and trace elements, microscopic analysis, radiocarbon dating, X rays–they can determine much about past populations: their diet, life span, physical size, the kinds of labor they performed, the diseases they suffered, what they died of. The information from these studies can be used to construct a profile of a particular population, answering such questions as: Were they fishermen or hunters and gatherers? How did they confer status? What were their rituals? How well did they adapt to change? Anthropologists can also use information about past populations as a baseline for studies of modern diet, disease, and environment.

Ubelaker, concerned about media distortions of the issue, asks for fair treatment and warns against Indian “activists” whom he says have overdramatized the repatriation issue.

“The feelings of activists on this issue are more intense than is out there on the reservation,” he says. “Neither do I feel that people on the reservation are wild about the science of human remains. But I feel there are other issues that are more important to many of them.”

Indians want their ancestors’ bones and something more. They want to rectify the past, even in a small way. To them, bones and sacred objects are part of their tribal cultures, which have been assaulted by white society through warring, forced relocation, and an education system that derided traditional Indian ways. The desecration of their ancestors’ graves stands as one more example of abuse. To some Indians, the issue is who will be the caretakers of their traditions–the Indians themselves or museums and anthropologists?

“If we don’t hold onto our culture, in another 50 to 100 years we’ll have a guy from the Smithsonian showing us how to build a sweat lodge,” says Wagner.

Modern physical anthropologists profit from the large collections built through the plundering of Indian grave sites in the 19th and 20th centuries. But they are beginning to pay a price for the way those remains were acquired. Anthropology began to flourish in the U.S. during the post-Civil War period, when Indians were being decimated by the Indian wars, disease, and starvation. Accounts of 19th-century ethnologists and anthropologists reflect their urgent feeling that they were preserving cultures in danger of dying out. At the same time, many anthropologists and ethnologists expressed the common belief that whites were at a more advanced cultural stage than Indians. Implicit was the notion that whites were the proper keepers of Indian cultural artifacts and remains. Some collectors of remains apparently felt their higher purposes justified the robbing of Indian graves. Franz Boas, the noted anthropologist, described the practice as repulsive but necessary.

Anthropologists still exhibit racist attitudes toward the Indians, argues Oren Lyons, a chief of the Onandaga tribe in New York and a professor of American studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. “They put us in with the flora and fauna of the natural history museum,” he says, “as though we’re not exactly people.” He criticizes anthropologists and museum curators for having a fixation with historical Indians, while ignoring the feelings of modern Indians.

“They should have the consent of people before they do studies [on their ancestors’ remains],” he says. “The development [of anthropology] has been from a very arrogant perspective.”

Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams has acknowledged that the Smithsonian has been insensitive to Indians in the past, promising the institution will do better in the future. Since he took the position of secretary in 1984, Adams has met with Indians seeking repatriation of remains, written on the issue in Smithsonian magazine, and testified before Congress on the subject. He has stated that remains of identifiable individuals and those collected illicitly should be returned to tribes. Most of the remains in those categories, including the Blackfeet skulls, came from the Army Medical Museum collection begun by the surgeon general in 1862 and transferred to the Smithsonian around the turn of the century. However, in congressional testimony, Adams said that the vast majority of remains in the Smithsonian date from “prehistoric” periods and were “acquired through approved archaeological excavations, or as the result of salvage operations i.e., where remains have been exposed as the result of natural processes such as erosion or man-made incursions such as road building.”

Adams has essentially asked Indians to be patient with the Smithsonian. Although there are still remains of Indians in a display in the Human Origin and Variation Hall in the natural history museum, they will be removed when the hall is remodeled, he said. He has described the return of remains as a time-consuming process involving many hours of research on the origin of the remains and attempts to correlate remains from a particular region with a living tribe. Complicating the return of remains in some cases, he has said, is the necessity of weighing tribal claims against the museum’s responsibility to preserve its collections.

“[The remains] don’t belong to me or to Mr. Adams,” Ubelaker explains. “We’re paid to look after them. I’m a curator, and there are well-meaning Indian groups wanting to destroy them, put them in the ground and turn them to dust. There’s an opposition in our positions.”

Despite that opposition, Ubelaker points out that the Smithsonian has worked successfully with tribes seeking their ancestors’ bones. (The Smithsonian will deal only with tribally elected representatives who request the return of remains.) But some Indians say that the tribes should not have to rely on the goodwill of the Smithsonian to secure remains that rightfully belong to them.

“We may not know whose bones they are,” says SUNY professor Oren Lyons, “but we know whose bones they are not–the Smithsonian’s.”

Suzan Shown Harjo, executive director of the D.C.-based National Congress of American Indians, has argued that Indians have a legal right to the bones: “Nowhere in the Constitution does it guarantee the scientific right of anthropologists to study Indian remains,” she told the Associated Press. “It does talk about religious freedom, and the collection and display of human skeletal remains is violative of our religious freedom.”

Attorneys who have researched the topic say the legal issues surrounding remains are complex. A patchwork of federal and state laws governs the fate of bones depending on where they’re uncovered. Although no tribe has tried it yet, eventually one may take the Smithsonian to court in order to get remains back, says Steve Moore, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado. But Moore says a legislative approach may be more productive right now than a legal one.

“My feeling is that the important issues aren’t legal, they’re moral,” he says. “The most important instrument is the media and ultimately Congress. Congress should decide where the ownership line is drawn.”

Political observers say it’s too early to determine the fate of the two Senate bills addressing Indian remains. Melcher has introduced a rewritten version of Senate bill 187 that includes changes suggested at a public hearing held last year. Both portions of Inouye’s bill–the reburial of remains and the transfer of the Museum of the American Indian collection to the Smithsonian–have been controversial. Karen Funk, governmental affairs coordinator for Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Wilder, a Washington law firm that represents many Indian tribes, says she doesn’t expect either bill to pass during this year’s truncated legislative session, but says growing interest in the repatriation issue may mean they’ll be reintroduced next year. Because Inouye is pushing for passage of Senate bill 1722, she says, it seems more likely that it will be brought to a vote. But it’s less certain that it will contain provisions regarding reburial, which have been strongly opposed by museum administrators, anthropologists, and archaeologists.

Thomas King, an archaeologist who heads an office in the Interior Department that assesses the effect of federal projects on historic sites, says he expects that some form of legislation will compel the Smithsonian and other federally funded museums to return remains to tribes who request them. “It is fundamentally the right thing to do,” he says. “I can’t believe the political system won’t rectify it eventually.”

In the last decade, a number of states enacted laws that provide for reburial of Indian remains unearthed on state and private lands. The Indianapolis group American Indians Against Desecration says it has reburied remains of 5,000 Indians. The U.S. Forest Service for Southern and Eastern Regions this year issued a policy whereby remains dug up on National Forest System lands will be reburied. An Iowa law requiring reburial of human remains older than 150 years forced the Museum of the State Historical Society and the Putnam Museum to turn over remains to the State Archaeologist’s Office for reburial.

Many tribes allow anthropologists or archaeologists to make photographs, measurements, and casts of remains before they are reinterred. Ubelaker says this limited study is better than none. Still, it frustrates anthropologists. Increasingly sophisticated techniques are being developed for studying remains. For example, by extracting antibodies and immunoglobulins from inside the bones, scientists can determine what diseases a population was exposed to. Presumably, advanced methods of study will continue to be developed when the remains are back in the earth.

“We can make casts, use radiography, take photographs, and make detailed observations, but even with effort, you still can’t predict everything future scientists will need for their work,” Ubelaker says. “It’s a loss no matter how you measure it.”

In the dimly lit Kitcheteria, Wagner and Yellow Kidney are finishing their cigarettes. Yellow Kidney reflects on his three-and-a-half-year effort to get the skulls.

“I went up against the Smithsonian, a national institution, an institution of international importance, and I won,” Yellow Kidney says, with more wonder than boast. He adds, “It wasn’t me so much as some power in me that helped me get [the skulls] back for my people.”

The return of the skulls will help bring the tribe together, Wagner says. He hopes that it will give emotional and spiritual uplift to the tribe’s young people. “By getting our skeletons back, we can make the youth feel what they were missing has been brought back home,” Wagner says. “We don’t need alcohol and drug use to survive. We need what was given us by the Great Spirit.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Darrow Montgomery.